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Galaxies come to the Vatican

Galaxies, collections of billions of stars in beautiful spirals or elegant elliptical clouds, were once called “island universes” because they seemed so distant that they couldn’t possibly impinge on us. But the study of galaxies, near and far, young and old, has touched the Vatican this past month. It is the topic of the Vatican Observatory’s fourteenth summer school in Observational Astronomy and Astrophysics.

These schools are held every two years at its headquarters in the Papal Summer Gardens of Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. The current school began on June first; it ends with a Papal audience on Thursday and final classes on Friday.

Twenty five university and post-graduate students have come from twenty two nations, from Argentina to Thailand, to spend these four weeks at the Vatican Observatory. They were chosen from one hundred forty applicants as those most likely to pursue an active career in astronomy. The only other criterion other than academic promise was that no nation would have more than two representatives. The final enrollment includes participants from every continent (including two from Africa, six from South America, and eight from Asia), and an almost even split of 13 men, 12 women.

The topic of galaxies is timely for many reasons. “Galaxy formation and evolution is at the forefront of modern astronomy research,” noted Fr. José Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, and himself an expert in galaxy observations. “Galaxies are the fundamental building blocks of the universe. And new space and radio telescopes, and sophisticated numerical modeling, are challenging our views of galaxies, young and old.”

Looking out from the local group of galaxies, including our own Milky Way and its near neighbor Andromeda, we can now see back to see galaxies formed within the first billion years after the Big Bang. By studying distant galaxies, whose light began its journey to our telescopes more than ten billion years ago, we can look back in time to the conditions that existed when the first stars were formed.

Dr. John Stocke, of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado has led a group of four distinguished faculty members whose lectures have revealed an explosion of new results from a wide variety of telescopes just becoming available. He has been joined by Christopher Carilli, of the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico; Michele Trenti, of the University of Cambridge, UK; and Jacqueline van Gorkom, of Columbia University, New York.

Among the guest speakers addressing the students have been Miguel San Martin, the designer of the landing system for NASA’s Curiosity Rover currently active on Mars; and Dr. Filippo Mannucci, the director of the Astrophysical Observatory of Arcetri outside Florence. In addition to lecturing on the metallicity of galaxies, Dr. Mannucci also hosted the students on a tour of the observatory in Arcetri, including a visit to Galileo’s villa.

The Galileo visit, including a trip to the Galileo museum in Florence, points up a theme running through this school. The mixture of old and new, near and far, can be applied not only to the history of the universe revealed in the galaxies the students have been studying, but also the history of astronomy revealed in their visits around Italy.

“The Galileo house was amazing,” remarked Jaco Mentz, a student from South Africa. “Just to think that he lived here at the end of his life, in such different times.”

“I had the same feeling when we visited the church where St. Francis was, in Assisi,” commented Juan Garavito, from Colombia. “And the history you can see in the city of Rome is amazing.”

For many students, visiting Rome was notable not only for its famous historical sites, but simply by contrast to their home countries. One student admitted that, before this trip, he had never seen the ocean before. And David Chun Wai Lau remarked, “I can’t get used to the traffic! In Hong Kong, the traffic follows the traffic lights!”

Titania Virginflosia, from Indonesia, described how she felt to be welcomed so far from home. “I was worried when I came here, because not only do we have to be expert in astronomy, but also in English, and my English was not strong. I was worried about giving the presentation on my research in English. But Fr Funes reassured us that coming from Argentina himself, he understood that we would need time. The faculty are very understanding. And by the second week I was used to the English.” Her talk, on the interaction of binary stars with massive black holes at the center of our galaxy, was the first time she had presented her work in English.

Still, the most important lessons from the school may be in the personal interactions among the students. As Jaco put it, “What has most amazed me has been to be able to meet so many people from different cultures, to make friends and possibly colleagues of all these different people.”

And Juan agreed. “Science and friends can go together. In my home university there is basically only me and one other student working on these topics. It has been wonderful to find so many new friends here.”

David added, “As the youngest, I have had to work very hard to keep up with the content of the lectures. But it has just made me even more enthusiastic about being an astronomer.”

The faculty agree. “The Vatican Summer School has been an amazing opportunity to make an impact on tomorrow's leaders in astronomy by mentoring the next generation of thinkers,” Dr. Trenti said. “I knew there would be a global and diverse atmosphere as the school, with participants representing different world cultures and backgrounds. But what has surprised me was not just to teach these students, but to live in such close contact with them, and pick up on how passionate they are about astronomy.”

Since the first summer school was held in 1986, more than 350 students have taken part in this program. More than 85% continue today as professional astronomers, including some of the most notable figures in contemporary astronomy.

Guy Consolmagno

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